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The Little Horror Movie Studio That Refuses to Die

Haven’t heard of Full Moon? Don’t worry, you’ve seen their creepy low-budget movies.

Ringer illustration

For 30 years, Charles Band has been the master of a universe. Not the universe. His powers are much more modest. But since 1988, Band has headed the company now known as Full Moon Features. That’s meant overseeing an empire built on killer puppets, possessed playthings, malevolent bongs, a giant psychic head, and other unusual elements while working outside the mainstream — sometimes way outside the mainstream. It’s also meant directing dozens of films and producing hundreds more, sometimes operating out of L.A., other times out of Italy, and still others in Romania, where he became the first American producer to open a production facility in the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

It’s also meant working constantly and for many years to diminishing returns—pressing on when the profits dropped and the outlets dried up and the audience seemed to dwindle, convinced that the world needed Demonic Toys: Personal Demons and Puppet Master: Axis of Evil and making sure the films reached everyone who wanted to see them. Band ensured that the universe he created kept expanding, however slowly and however inhibited by the limitations of a modest budget, year after year and movie after movie. John Carpenter, who edited a now-lost early Band movie, once told an interviewer “When the atomic bomb goes off, all that will be left will be cockroaches, and I think the other survivor will be Charlie Band.” He seems to have meant it as a compliment.

Band was born into show business. He’s the son of Albert Band, who broke into movies assisting John Huston before transitioning into writing (he scripted Huston’s Red Badge of Courage adaptation), producing, and directing. (His directorial credits begin with the 1956 western The Young Guns and end with 1994’s Prehysteria! 2, a product of Full Moon’s family-friendly Moonbeam offshoot.) Albert’s work took him to Europe, including a long stretch in Italy, where Charles and his brother Richard, who’s provided the memorable scores to many of Charles’s films, would grow up.

Charles Band’s filmmaking career, however, begins in Hollywood, though it would soon take him elsewhere. He made his feature debut with Last Foxtrot in Burbank (the now-lost 1973 softcore parody on which Carpenter worked as an editor) and he would serve as a producer on everything from a nudity-filled musical adaptation of Cinderella to Laserblast, a low-budget science fiction. That film became fodder for a memorable episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but it’s intriguing on its own terms and sets up some Band trademarks, including a fondness for stop-motion effects and a tendency to take on projects where ambition often crashes into the ceiling of budgetary limitations. As a director, Band’s highest-profile effort came with 1983’s Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, a 3D space opera distributed by Universal that did only modest business in the waning days of a summer dominated by Return of the Jedi and Risky Business.

This could have been the end. Many filmmakers retreated when the freewheeling ’70s gave way to the more corporate ’80s. But it’s here that the Charles Band story starts to diverge from the usual script. Undaunted, Band pressed on, forming Empire International Pictures in 1983 and setting out to dominate the low-budget marketplace. And for a few years, he did just that. He directed the weirdly charming Trancers, in which stand-up veteran Tim Thomerson plays a wisecracking cop from the future who falls in love with ’80s Angeleno Helen Hunt. He teamed up with Stuart Gordon for the horror classics Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Dolls (which seemed to have unlocked Band’s love for bringing creepy, inanimate objects to life). He produced Ghoulies and Troll and Robot Holocaust and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and TerrorVision and all of them found an audience, in video stores or on cable, if not in theaters. He bought an Italian castle. He vowed to make 200 films by the year 2000. Then he hit a wall.

From Subspecies
Full Moon

Empire’s financial troubles led to Band’s departure from the company in 1988, but that year proved to be exactly the right time to start over — with a slight adjustment in strategy. In October, Variety ran an ad announcing a partnership between the just-formed Full Moon production company and Paramount Home Video. And thus a new universe was born, one that would creep into virtually every video store in America. Who needed movie theaters anyway?

“By ’87, ’88, it was clear that that’s not going to be our medium anymore,” Band says, speaking by phone from Full Moon’s Los Angeles offices. “I don’t regret it because we did pretty well for some years with Paramount, building up Full Moon, which at one point was releasing a new title every month.” The idea was as simple as it was ambitious; Band wanted Full Moon to become “the comic books of the ’90s.” This wasn’t just talk. Working in an office decorated with giant reproductions of comic book panels, Band had a plan inspired by the Marvel Comics he grew up reading: produce film series with regularly released entries, create brand loyalty to the company by pleasing dedicated and growing fan bases, and occasionally — years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe — let the film worlds of the universe he created cross over with one another.

Puppetmaster, the first film in the studio’s most famous franchise, got things started in October 1989. Directed by horror veteran David Schmoeller and featuring effects by the experienced stop-motion animator David W. Allen, the film is set in a mostly abandoned hotel and pits a gathering of psychics against a group of killer puppets. The film has long stretches of tedium, but its inspired moments make it hard to forget, and if you were a curious horror fan browsing a video store and hoping to find a film featuring puppets capable of drilling through human flesh or vomiting leeches, this was the jackpot.

Other series followed. Reuniting with Thomerson and — for a couple of pre–Mad About You entries — Hunt, Band revived the Trancers series for five sequels (to date). From Full Moon’s new outpost in Romania, Ted Nicolaou kicked off the hard-edged vampire series Subspecies, which produced five entries between 1991 and 1998. In 1991, another film arrived, Dollman, also starring Thomerson as a displaced cop, this one a 13-inch crimefighter named Brick Bardo who comes from a planet proportionately smaller than Earth. Dollman never got a sequel, but he did appear in Dollman vs. Demonic Toys, which pits him against the villains of another Full Moon franchise, one whose existence probably owed a bit to the success of Puppetmaster.

“The silly answer [to why small things are scary] would be little things are much more affordable than monster things, but that’s not really it,” Band says. “I think inanimate objects that come to life one way or another are kind of creepy and fun. And manageable. … You don’t want to go out and make a movie that looks really stupid because you don’t have the money to create a credible effect.”

The kid-friendly Moonbeam imprint had its own franchises, most prominently the Prehysteria! films which drafted off a Jurassic Park–era hunger for all things involving dinosaurs. In true Band fashion, the films featured little dinosaurs. There were other movies too, including a Gordon-directed adaptation of The Pit and the Pendulum and an adult take on Beauty and the Beast starring a Twin Peaks–era Sherilyn Fenn called Meridian, both shot at Band’s Italian castle. (Gordon would return a few years later to shoot Castle Freak.) There was also Doctor Mordrid, a tribute to Band’s beloved Marvel hero Dr. Strange starring Jeffrey Combs, which Band codirected with his father.

Video store customers of the era could be forgiven for having a sense of cognitive dissonance created by Full Moon. “Our movies, which had never had theatrical releases in the early ’90s — we’re next to Aliens and all these $40-to-80 million studio films,” says Band. “Then next to it you would have Subspecies.” And for a while, Full Moon took up a lot of real estate in video stores. That was partly a matter of numbers since flooding the zone was part of the Full Moon strategy. But real affection and brand loyalty also helped drive the company’s rise, leading some stores to carve out sections dedicated to Full Moon titles. Some of the dedication was cultivated by Band, who, years before DVDs and their requisite special features, created the VideoZone segments tacked onto the end of Full Moon’s VHS tapes. A kind of video magazine inspired by Stan Lee’s “Soapbox” columns in Marvel Comics, VideoZone drew fans into the world of Full Moon via behind-the-scenes footage and promos that stoked anticipation for upcoming titles (some of which never saw the light of day).

Katie Rife, an A.V. Club critic for whom Full Moon movies were sleepover fixtures, attributes much of the studio’s identity to the Band that viewers encountered in these settings. “You can’t really separate the Full Moon sensibility from that of Charles Band,” Rife says. “The childlike enthusiasm he showed in those videos translates into the films, which all have this bargain-basement version of Spielbergian wonder mixed with R-rated violence and nudity. Perfect for 12-year-olds!”

Rife isn’t alone in encountering Full Moon at a formative age. “When I was in high school, on the weekend nights when I wasn’t staying up all night playing Dungeons & Dragons, my buddies and I would go to Blockbuster or the grocery store that had a video section and we would just rent, like, three or four cheapo horror movies and we’d watch them,” says Stuart Wellington, cohost of the movie podcast The Flop House, where he occasionally champions items from the Full Moon catalog. “Full Moon were kind of the kings of that era. They were one of those companies that put a lot of effort into the packaging of their VHS tapes. They always feature scantily clad women and like monsters and stuff. And that was, you know … that was what I was into. Though they often featured stuff that was not in the movie at all.”

Everything was going well. There were always more Puppet Master and Subspecies films, and Band had ambitions beyond them. Sometimes he’d commission artwork around broad concepts and let writers take it from there. There were toys and comic books and apparel and it looked like Band’s Marvel dreams were becoming video store reality. Then, once again, Band hit a wall. Broadly speaking, anyway. Dave Jay, William S. Wilson, and Torsten Dewi’s phone-book-thick Full Moon history It Came From the Video Aisle! chronicles a company that, even in its heyday, struggled to stretch a limited amount of money across an unforgiving production schedule. But things got harder when a change of leadership at Paramount and a shift in the marketplace led to the end of the company’s distribution deal, and with it, some of its plans for the future — like Doctor Mordrid 2, another Stuart Gordon Lovecraft adaptation, and the Puppet Wars trilogy, which would have found the Puppet Master cast doing battle with classic monsters against the backdrop of World War II.

Still, Band kept going, even when every indication suggested Full Moon didn’t have a future. His budgets shrank as the ’90s went on and shrank again at the turn of the 2000s. “The business just got tougher and tougher, therefore, the budgets got smaller and smaller,” Band says. “It’s funny, over the years, fans have gotten a little more educated because of social media. But not too many years ago, when we would make a movie … and it was really hard to make these movies for 20 percent of already a low budget … some of the letters would come in like, ‘Dude, how about some more special effects, and why didn’t that thing explode?’” Meanwhile, DVDs took the place of VHS, then Netflix’s movies-by-mail operation then its streaming service and the streaming services it inspired pushed video stores to the margins. For a while, Band even retired the Full Moon name in favor of Shadow Entertainment. “There was almost no point in making a movie with the Full Moon label,” he says, “just because there’s a point where the movies become so thin it’s not worth making them.”

Then, in the mid-’00s, a comeback began. Admittedly, it’s been a low-key comeback, but a comeback nonetheless. Band kicked off new series like The Gingerdead Man, starring Gary Busey as a killer reincarnated as a baked good, and the self explanatory Evil Bong series—titles that lean more on shock and humor than the Full Moon films of old. (Critic Charles Bramesco on the Evil Bong series: “I almost find some semblance of comfort in the dependable sophomoric streak; their staunch refusal to mature even in the slightest over the franchise’s many years has been a welcome constant in my life.”)

Band began touring the country with a Full Moon roadshow, hitting conventions and reconnecting with old fans who wondered what had happened. Yet, by Band’s own admission, the disappearance of video stores had dramatically lowered the ceiling on Full Moon’s reach. “People would go, ‘Dude, did you guys go out of business? We can’t find Full Moon movies anymore.’ I said, ‘Well, where did you get the movies?’ ‘Oh, we got them at our local video store.’ I said, ‘Well, what happened to the video store?’ ‘Oh, it’s a laundromat.’”

From Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

Still, a recent licensing deal has helped bring some new attention to the company. This August saw the release of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, the first Puppet Master film not to be released by Full Moon. Written by filmmaker S. Craig Zahler and released by Cinestate, the company responsible for Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99, it returns the series to its puppets-run-amok-in-a-hotel roots but offers a new spin on the series, revamping the puppets as tiny Nazis eager to carry out a master race agenda. In one memorable scene, a puppet kills a pregnant black woman in nightmare-inducing fashion, a moment the film largely plays for laughs.

Asked about Cinestate’s version, Band responds, “Well, it’s not a quick answer. I’m happy that I made a deal where they can continue, if they choose, to make their own bizarro world Puppet Master films and we’ll continue to make ours. That’s why the designs were a little different. People liked it, people hated it. It’s like anything else. It went in a whole different direction.” (Then again, Full Moon’s had its own issues mixing race, horror, and humor in recent years. The company’s films aren’t widely written about, but reviews of the 2013 release Ooga Booga raised concerns about its use of stereotypes.)

As for the future of Full Moon’s own universe, Band sounds at once optimistic and wistful. The company continues to adapt, finding a home at Hulu prior to launching its own streaming service (which is also nestled into Amazon’s Prime service). “We’re over two years old, which is really old in this business. We have a lot of subscribers and we’re hoping to bring in a lot more,” Band says. “It’s got pretty much the entire Full Moon library and everything I do gets premiered there. Fans are finding us again. It was tough for many years.”

There are always new movies to be made, and Band promises, “stand-alone, not humorous type” films. “It’s not like this is going to be a steady diet of Evil Bong movies.” And even if the days when adventurous video store patrons could walk out of a store with a stack of Full Moon titles are long gone, Band remains committed to his vision.

“The streaming sites are now slowly, hopefully bringing people back and they’re rediscovering what they like,” he says. “We have a pretty good share of young kids, too, who discover one or two [movies] and hopefully it’s like the old spread of it.”

Then he pauses.

“I don’t know. It’s always an adventure.”

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.

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